London is a city undergoing something of a facelift, with the old tenements and Victorian buildings being knocked down and on the sites new and gleaming office blocks and housing put up in their place. But here is James Mason to introduce us to what could soon be a vanished world, celebrating in his own, low key manner the London that is falling by the wayside as the place moves into the modern era. He starts his journey at an abandoned music hall where Marie Lloyd herself once tread the boards; it is dilapitated now, but imagine what it was like in its heyday...
Director Norman Cohen had evidently learned something from helming his previous documentary on the nation's capital, London in the Raw, as here was an oddly similar run through of some of the sights that the typical tourist would not normally see, only here there were no nightspots and strippers to detain us. This was meant to show us what the salt of the earth cityfolk got up to, taking in their homes, their workplaces and their entertainments, only the impression was of a population who were so poor that their amusement mostly came courtesy of buskers or fighting in the street.
Yet that mondo movie flavour was certainly there, with Mason a winningly confident but somehow melancholy guide through each segment, opining on his view of the city and offering us titbits of information that may or may not have been true. So you can go from a bustling market where the locals do their shopping on a Saturday morning, yes, that looks authentic enough, to a yard where their sole occupation is to break eggs, leading to a sequence where businesslike men karate chop the popular foodstuffs, run over them with a steamroller and otherwise smash them up.
There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason for that bit, but curiously it doesn't stand out as anything egregiously out of place, as it all contributes to the life's rich tapestry method of Cohen's style. Mason does lend an air of respectability to the film, and it's amusing to see him make his way through a crowd while politely greeting those who recognise him, or talk with down and outs about how well the Salvation Army is treating them. He even makes the weirder moments, such as finding the goldfish in the watertank of a public lavatory, come across as perfectly natural.
Still, there's a seedy atmosphere to quite a lot of this, with a noticeable amount apparently designed to put audiences off their popcorn, such as the diners shovelling eels into their mouths, or the meths drinkers blithely downing another bottle of spirits. Mason, or the writers Brian Comport and Geoffrey S. Fletcher (from whose chronicles this is drawn) anyway, isn't too optimistic by the end of this, as he welcomes the redevelopment but strongly hints that with the same people living there, the essential character of London will not change. Judging by what we've seen of them, they are either poverty-stricken but chipper, or poor, lost souls who are stuck in a trap of society's making; thankfully, the film never descends into mawkish sentimentality although treating everyone the camera's gaze falls upon in this manner does make them all look like curios, which is what this is. Music by Wilfred Burns.